Who Gets to Be Casual? Not Plus-Size Women
Why the trend cycle leaves women above a size 12 behind.
In July, writer Amanda Richards posed a question in an essay for InStyle: “Who gets to be trendy?” In it, she discusses how the perceived value of an outfit changes depending on the shape of the person wearing it. Specifically, a plus-size woman would often be criticized for wearing the same trend-forward outfit that a thin person would be lauded for. The ultimate 2020 version of that question is, of course, who gets to be comfortable? Who gets to participate in the year’s biggest anti-fashion trend—namely, sweatpants, athleisure, or generally any other lounge-y garment that skims the body without any intention to enhance it? The answer remains the same: certainly not plus-size women.
“Who is allowed to relax? Who is allowed to participate in self-care? Or who, by doing that, is perceived as lazy? When it comes to casual style, there’s a bit of respectability politics at play,” says Nicolette Mason, a brand strategist and creative consultant. She shared Richards’ essay, posing the question in an Instagram Story that may have appeared rhetorical at the time, but was anything but. “It’s the way that some girls can wear a tank top and sweats and it’s their ‘off-duty look’ and people think it’s #fashiongoals, but if I’m wearing that same outfit, I’m described and perceived as sloppy.”
She goes on to recall one of the cruelest comments she’s ever received, which appeared on a photo of her in a dressy outfit. “The basic sentiment was ‘It’s so crazy that you dress up like this all the time. You should just stick to sweatpants or something that doesn’t have a waistband’. It’s a damned-if-you-do or damned-if-you-don’t,” Mason says, not just of this specific incident, but of the all-too-common theme that plus-size bodies are up for discussion—and thereby, criticism—by the very act of existing.
“Either I dress up, and I’m apparently trying to distract people from the fact that I’m fat, or if I just wear the sweatpants, then I’m not put together and put no effort in or I’m a slob or lazy,” Mason says. “All of these are stereotypes that people attribute to fat people, plus-size people. There just isn’t the same leeway with plus-size people when it comes to style because people are going to project their attitudes onto them the majority of the time.”
Richards, who discussed trends like high-waisted denim shorts, graphic t-shirts “that look like they were purchased at a boardwalk gift shop,” and chunky sneakers in her InStyle article, says it’s not just an aesthetics thing. “I don’t think plus-size women are permitted the virtue of doing anything without being ridiculed or chastised or even silently criticized,” she says. “For a long time, I performed femininity way more than I wanted to because I felt like all the traditional fashion indicators of femininity—belt it at the waist, create a slim line, wear a dress in an unassuming color because you’re already big—could make a larger body acceptable to the world.” Athleisure, of course, bunks some of those indicators of femininity: Bike shorts don’t come with belts to accentuate the waist; loose joggers don’t hug your curves; an oversize hoodie, by definition, isn’t a silhouette that allows for “clean lines.”
A post on the account @yrfatfriend recounts a story of a plus-size woman who wore workout clothes to walk her dog when “a stranger called out across the street, ‘Good job, you’ll get there!’” The assumption that all plus-size women are trying—and, presumably, failing—to lose weight isn’t just hateful and fatphobic, but downright dangerous.
And it’s not just the criticism: The clothing literally does not exist. The same way cute, quality activewear didn’t exist in plus sizes for decades, the same is true for other casual pieces like sweatpants, oversize tees, bike shorts, and crewneck sweatshirts. Athleisure might be the year’s biggest trend, but it’s certainly nothing new—there’s been time for brands to catch up.
Still, the struggle to find a cute pair of plus-size sweatpants or a hoodie that isn’t in the men’s department is real. A New York Times feature that even lent itself well to a Sunday episode of The Daily chronicled the success of loungewear brand Entireworld, which has enjoyed a pandemic bump in sales for its cotton-candy-colored, look-at-me sweatsuits. The only issue, of course, is that its size range goes from XS to XL. In the same vein, cool-girl brand Pangaia, who appears to stock its cult-favorite sweats in sizes from XXS to 2XL, currently has only 11 of more than 100 women’s styles available in a 2XL. “We are currently working on increasing our size range across all products—for now, some of our products are XS–XL and others are XXS–XXL,” the brand said in a statement to Coveteur. “This is a work in progress, and the aim is definitely to have more inclusive sizing moving forward.”
Kelsey Miller, author of Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting & Got a Life in 2016, wrote in a September 8, 2020, Instagram Story that she’s been served ads for Hill House’s best-selling Nap Dress left and right—and despite the speculation that programmatic ads follow us to every corner of the internet when we so much as think about a product, Miller lamented that she did, in fact, want to buy the Nap Dress—but couldn’t. “I don’t even care that it’s just genius marketing,” she said. “I’ve been trying to impulse-purchase the Nap Dress since March! But they don’t make it in my size!” Hill House said in a DM that the brand planned to launch two additional sizes of its Nap Dress later this month, but only up to a size 22.
“Plus-size women always have to get really inventive with their style,” says Richards, who says that most plus-size clothing is hyperfeminine and certainly not on-trend for the current season. “They have to shop men’s or thrift and basically just game the system to present the way they want to—especially if their style isn’t super feminine or girly. The contemporary, feminine, luxe stuff exists now, and that’s great, but good basics that are on-trend and fit the vibe are so hard to find. It’s a challenge.”
Meanwhile, as consumers switch from in-person shopping to online-only, the lack of a universal size chart for all brands remains an issue. “Some brands say they go up to 7X, but when you look at the measurements, it’s really much smaller,” says brand consultant and content creator Kellie Brown, who founded her own line of merch after seeing a severe hole in the market for loungewear. She says fatphobia “absolutely” affected her style as a twentysomething navigating the world as “the biggest girl” in her friend group. “If we went out and everyone said they weren’t getting dressed up, I’d do what they did and put my hair in a bun, put on some sweats-like clothing, and I’d look in the mirror and feel like shit. I’d feel not cute and not like myself. When you’re bigger, you always have something to prove, so I would always make small adjustments to feel like me, and my friends would ask why I always had to look so good, and I would say, ‘Honestly, I’d just rather [wear] cute stuff.’”
The only problem? There was no cute stuff for her to spend her money on. “The reason that I don’t wear casual plus-size clothes is because they don’t exist,” she says, recalling a grey tracksuit from Mason’s brand Premme which was sunset in 2019. “I don’t want a batwing-sleeve sweatshirt, I don’t want something with a cheesy saying like ‘You Go Girl.’ I want to wear the same cool sweatshirt that my thin friends would want to, but no investor believes that anyone above a size 12 has any desire to look cute or any money to spend on fashion. Even though the numbers say opposite, they can’t get out of their own bias.”
And when a brand does get the money to produce extended sizing, it seems it doesn’t always account for marketing. When trend-focused retailer Reformation launched its permanent plus-size collection in 2019, one year after testing the waters by way of a collaboration with Ali Tate Cutler, it launched up to a size 22. “They weren’t doing any marketing or sharing photos on social of any plus-size people wearing extended sizes,” Mason says, noting that she no longer shops there after the brand’s fall from grace in June. “They weren’t restocking pieces or including plus in new deliveries, but when I brought it up to the founder, she said the plus sizes don’t sell well. Of course they don’t sell well! They’re hidden! There’s no awareness that they exist! Brands punish the customer for not making it succeed when they’re not taking any steps to help it succeed.”
Similarly, Universal Standard, which regularly stocks sizes 00–40 in casual wear like bike shorts, zip-up hoodies, and leggings, was also widely criticized for using plus-size and BIPOC employees and influencers as visible, consumer-facing virtue signals that were meant to placate its social audience, all without commensurate payment.
“I don’t think every brand should or [should] have to make plus sizes because I don’t want to pressure a brand to cater to people who look like me if they don’t care about us,” Mason says. “To care about it means to really do it well and pay attention to fit and invest in grading, not just doing it because people are pressuring. Unfortunately, when brands just succumb to pressure, they don’t invest in developing and marketing it properly.”
Brown, for what it’s worth, says it couldn’t have been easier to make inclusive sizing. “Those that aren’t doing it are choosing not to do it.”
Another choice, of course, is the lack of plus-size models during fashion week. It may seem unrelated, but when athleisure-adjacent trends like joggers, wide-leg pants, and tailored hoodies trickle down, the plus-size market is left in the dust. A quick look at the stats from fashion week show a similarly troubling trend, with the amount of plus-size models plummeting from spring to fall by almost 50 percent—an oscillating data point that’s held true for almost half a dozen seasons.
According to The Fashion Spot, in spring 2020, 86 plus-size models walked the runways, with every city having at least two plus-size castings. It may not seem all that impressive—nor is it a proper representation—but it’s a sizable jump from fall 2019, when there were only 50. For comparison’s sake, 46 plus-size models walked in fall 2020 and 27 in fall 2018. The numbers for fall seasons generally chart much lower, with 49 plus-size models in spring 2019 and 34 in spring 2018.
“There was a period of time that any time a designer sent a relatively chunky girl down the runway wearing body con, everyone was like, ‘YES, this designer is committed to inclusivity!’ It was such an echo chamber,” Richards says. “It’s an interesting paradox because when we put plus-size celebrities on covers, when we think about how plus-size women are supposed to dress, we ultimately just think they should cover up in big coats, so you’d think the fall runway would have a lot more plus-size women. But to give plus-size women attention for being visible, it has to be sexualized; it has to be something that shows off their body, because that’s the radical act. But really, the next iteration of this thought is to put amazing clothing on plus-size bodies and have it have nothing to do with the body itself. Put me in an impeccably tailored coat, and send me on my way—who cares if you can’t see that I have curves?”
Brown agrees, mentioning that plus-size celebrities are often posed half-naked in editorials: “Where’s the fashion? It was all very salacious and performative, very ‘look at this juicy body’ and pushing the idea that a larger body can be sexy, rather than pushing the idea of fashion, which is just about the clothes.”
While Mason says brands like Calpak (yes, the luggage brand), ASOS, and Fabletics (for which she’s an ambassador) offer great plus-size activewear, there’s no real consensus across the board. “The clothes I really want to wear all the time are Nanushka and Cult Gaia, so if I were 100 percent dressing for myself, it would also mean having those pieces available in my size. There are a lot of barriers to self-expression.”
Richards agrees that there aren’t really any brands getting it right and notes the destructive effects fashion as a whole has on the environment and humanity. “But there could be more brands that are doing it proudly and unapologetically with quality in mind. Our job as consumers, and an underserved community, [is that] we can’t ever rest on our laurels that a brand got it right. Fashion needs to do better for everyone.”
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